Finding Christ in an Unlikely Place

Sept. 23, 2016 Jennifer J. Smith

Session Transcript

Jennifer Smith: Good morning! What a privilege to be able to attend, now, my third True Woman! And what a privilege and an honor it is to be able to share God’s story, that He has written in my life, and to share when sin and the cross of Jesus collided in my life, and the result of that. 

Or, as Dr. Moore shared last night, how when the gospel wrecked and rebuilt my life. Or, as Blair shared, how I went from being a captive to being captivated by Christ. Or, as Mary shared, when I found that place where Jesus became enough.

I want to share with you, briefly, this morning that I’m a former inmate. I spent eleven-and-a-half years in the Arkansas Department of Corrections. Before I go any farther, I just want to stop and say, I know I don’t look that old (laughter). I know you’re thinking, There’s no way you spent that many years in prison!

But, you try being canned for about twelve years—see if it doesn’t preserve your youth! You know what I mean? (laughter) You guys got that! Usually I have to explain that joke. So, this is encouraging already! (laughter)

How many of you have ever heard the saying, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but . . .” what? “Words will never hurt me.” I remember the first time I actually heard that saying; I think I was probably in around third or fourth grade. I was in recess, bullying.

This girl that I was picking on (this was pre-Christ, so don’t judge me too harshly)—she just strolled up to me and said this thing. I’d never heard it before. Then she just walked off, and it kind of stopped me in my tracks. It stopped me from saying anything. I had nothing to say after that.

I was like, “Huh! Wow. That’s cool. I can’t wait to try that.” It wasn’t long that I got that opportunity. I was on the school bus, and this boy was picking on me, and I thought, This is my chance. I’m going to try that. So I said it—probably not as good as she did—and he didn’t have the same reaction that I did.

So, he just kept on, and then I just started just “whaa-haa”—crying—because his words were really hurting my feelings! On a serious note, we do know that words do hurt, don’t they? They awaken a host of different emotions within us.

We know that some words can offend us, they can insult us, they can awaken insecurities when they’re spoken to us. They can awaken fears; they can awaken anger; they can cause your blood pressure to rise, and that vein in your temple to start pumping fast, rapidly, and your jaws to clench.

I’m getting carried away. I was thinking about when I heard about the Westin hotel not having its Starbucks this year. (laughter) Anyway, words can awaken different emotions within us. At the same time, they can encourage us.

Words can awaken security, they can awaken joy, encouragement. They can bring peace, the words that are spoken to us.

As I look back on my life . . . I was raised in northwest Arkansas (if you can’t tell that already, I’m from the South). I had an older sibling. Back then, they didn’t have the 4-D (maybe it’s 5-D, I don’t know)—where they can go in and see the gender of the (unborn) baby. They have all kinds of dimensions now—I don’t think they had that in the seventies.

My parents already had a girl; they wanted a boy. That’s what the doctors told them I was supposed to be. And, of course, surprise! I wasn’t! Of course, they were disappointed, because I was going to be Bobby Joe, Jr., and that just didn’t work now. Instead, I became Jennifer Jo.

They said one little sentence to me, in teasing, throughout my childhood. It was, “You were a mistake. God was supposed to give us a boy.” And you know, those words—they created insecurity within me. They created anger within me. They created doubts. A lot of different things would come to the surface, when I would hear those words, growing up.

And then, they became my own. I began to believe them and rehearse them to myself. So I had a view of God—from a small child—that He made mistakes, and that I was one of them—and I didn’t want really anything to do with Him.

Although I grew up going to church with my grandma, knowing the facts about God, I never really knew God. As I began to grow older, at ten years old I had something else in my life that happened, from within the church. I was actually sexually molested by a Sunday school teacher.

That happened for about four years of my life. The words he spoke created different things within me, as well. And so, now, I have this heart that is very angry, very cold, very bitter toward anything that had to do with the Lord.

Then, I heard some other words, as I was about eleven years old. I heard these words: “If you try this, it will make you feel better.” I wanted to feel better. I wanted to feel something different than what I had felt to that point in my life, and so I did, I tried it.

And it did make my feel better temporarily. But you know, when it wore off the next morning, the same misery was there, the same emptiness, the same despair. I began a lifestyle, then, of drug use—and everything that goes with that lifestyle of sin: relationships that were not healthy, living life on the streets, leaving home at fifteen years old, disrespecting, not valuing anyone that spoke any kind of guidance into my life.

I found myself in a cycle I could not get out of. There were times in that cycle I would look back and say, “How did I get here? How did I get to this place?” Because I don’t ever remember thinking, when I was about four, “I can’t wait to grow up to be a drug addict. Nobody ever thought that. I can’t wait to grow up to be a criminal. That was never the case. I had other dreams. But, then the thought would come, Well, you’re stuck. This is your life. So words, again, they’re powerful.

Long story, short: I ended up being arrested several times for possession of drugs. I’ve been to three different rehabs. I became a felon before I was ever eighteen. So I will not get political on you up here, because I can’t even vote—I can’t even do that [she refers to the coming national election].

At age twenty-two, I found myself being sentenced to the Arkansas Department of Corrections for drugs and robbery. And I can tell you, that is the best thing that ever could have happened to me. The best thing!

At this point, I still did not know Christ, but He knew in His sovereignty where He was going to strategically allow the direction of my life to go, so that I could hear the gospel of Jesus Christ—that would one day set me free! (applause)

So, I entered McPherson Prison in Arkansas (the maximum security unit for women) at twenty-two years old, having—I knew—almost twelve years to do before I was even eligible for parole. I didn’t really know much about prison; I’d been in and out of county jail—just what you see on TV.

I had a game plan. I thought, If I go in and act really crazy, then people will leave me alone, and I just will not have any problems. So that was my game plan. I entered into prison, and I did that for a minute . . . and I quickly realized there were crazier people than myself there! So the Lord had a different game plan.

But there was also another group of people that I discovered in this place of darkness, in this place where murderers are housed—rapists, drug addicts—those people that Dr. Moore was referring to last night in his message. Those people were housed there.

There was a group within those people who had found something. They had found Christ; they had found Jesus! There was a barracks within there that was a faith-based program. You could volunteer to sign up and live in that barracks, and just become a student of the Word of God and be taught how to live those things out.

Of course, I wasn’t going to join them, because I hated God still—I was still His enemy. I was still living my life the way I wanted to live. So, I just started making fun of them, like everybody else did. But secretly, I was watching them. Secretly, I was observing the joy that they had in the midst of prison. That haunted me, because I had never experienced that.

I didn’t understand how some of these ladies could have this joy in the midst of serving a life sentence—and never again be able to walk outside those doors. I never understood that! It haunted me, but it drew me at the same time.

After about a year of making fun of them and persecuting them, I decided to join them. Y’know, if you can’t beat 'em, you join 'em, right? (laughter) So I signed up to come into this program, and I began to hear things I had never heard in my entire life! I began to hear the good news!

I began to hear of a gospel that said it wasn’t anything that I could do; I couldn’t to clean myself up enough in order to be accepted by this Savior. But I began to hear about a Savior who knew no sin at all, yet He became sin so that I could be made in His righteousness.

I began to hear about a Savior who died a criminal’s death . . . my death . . . and the wrath of God for my sins was placed upon Him that day. He bore that—He bore my sin—and He paid that debt. And all I had to do was accept what He had done, and believe and trust that the work He did on the cross was enough to free me from a lifetime of a bondage to sin, and His blood was enough to cleanse me and to forgive me.

In that moment, when my sin and the cross collided, I became reconciled with a Holy God! (applause) I’ll never forget December 21, 2000, after hearing the gospel over weeks, for the first time His Spirit interacted with me. I realized I was a sinner, and I needed a Savior.

I went to my cell—210B—and I fell on my face and I cried out to a holy, living God and asked Him to forgive me of who I was and what I had done . . . and if He could use my life and if He could salvage anything that was left, it was His. And He’s been working me ever since! (applause)

But it doesn’t stop there. Now that I had a new life in Christ and His Spirit resided within me, I still had the memory of who I was. I still had the memory of what I had done. That’s where His Word is so precious! It’s the very thing that He says will renew our minds and bring transformation in our life—which I so desperately needed—and still need today!

As I began to learn truths and I began to become hungry for the Word of God, I realized that . . . Yes, the gospel—it’s great—and it saved me, and it reconciled me, and it rescued me from my sin. But that was almost sixteen years ago. What is it doing still, today, in my life? Is it still doing that?

When we forget that, when we forget what God has rescued us from, the gospel isn’t good news anymore—it’s just news. It doesn’t bring that brokenness and that awe—that He would save someone like each of us. We have all fallen short and sinned.

Just because I was in a physical prison, there’s no difference from being in a spiritual prison. We forget that. We forget that gospel that we were rescued by. We don’t rehearse that. Maybe you’re within the church, and someone took your seat! (laughter) Or maybe the committee just did not vote in the direction that you wanted. Or maybe that person just never shows up to serve, but always wants to be served.

Those little small offenses and irritations happen. The gospel says, “Forgive”—not just forgiveness from here to here, but from here to here. And as I began to learn those things, I had to take responsibility. I could not excuse and justify, anymore, the decisions I’d made in life because of the way I’d been talked to or because I’d been taken advantage of and sinned against greatly.

I could not use that anymore as an entitlement to continue to make bad decisions. But now, the gospel looked different to me because—after forgiveness—now, I had to forgive. And that was a challenge! But I needed the gospel and I needed the grace of God to be able to do that.

As I began to practice that in my life, then I realized I became even more free. Freedom began to multiply in other areas. And so, even today, when I get offended or I get mad (because Starbucks is not in the Westin), I have to forgive them. (laughter) I don’t want to be bound in a prison of unforgiveness!

There are two times in Scripture that those two are mentioned in the same passage. I’m not going to quote them all, but Matthew 5 is one. Mary hit on that last night, where she was talking about if you bring your gift before the altar and there remember that your brother has something against thee . . .

Scripture says, first go your way and be reconciled, and then come again and offer your gift. Be reconciled with them. And He tells you what’s going to happen if you don’t—that He’s going to put you in prison until all is paid.

The other is in Matthew 18—the story of the two servants. One owed the huge debt, the other owed the small debt. One forgave; the other didn’t. How quick we are to be like that wicked servant, and not realize what God has forgiven us from. We’re quick to hold someone else’s debt when they offend us and not release that forgiveness.

And so, as we rehearse the gospel to ourselves, we have to realize that forgiveness has to be released to others, just like it’s been given to us. That was a challenge that I began to learn in prison. And, I’m runnin’ out of time, so I’m fixin’ to wrap it up.

The Lord used prison as a mission field for me. He began to birth a desire for women coming out of prison to have something like what was in prison. He began to birth a desire in me to be a missionary, in my heart, when I was released from prison.

I was released May 31, 2011, and the Lord has not ceased to amaze me with His goodness and His mercy! Prison is the best thing that could have ever happened to me! It was there I met Christ, it was there the gospel transformed my life, and it’s there that I’ve learned how to live a life free in Christ, full in Christ, and a life that’s fruitful in Christ. 

I’m so thankful for the opportunity to be able to share with you today a part of God’s story in my life, and where He set me free, and how the gospel impacted—and is still impacting—my life. Thank you! 

Bob Lepine: Don’t you love her, and love her story? I have to ask you, Jennifer (and we’re going to bring some friends of yours up here in just a minute), forgiveness has had to extend to people who said hurtful things to you when you were growing up . . . including your parents?

Jennifer: Yes. The Lord restored that relationship with my parents.

Bob: Wow!

[Then Jennifer, now a chaplain where she was once incarcerated, introduces three friends who are with her, who were also inmates there—two whom she was chaplain to: Tamara Owen, Stephanie Hankins, and Amy Naughton.] 

Bob: Tamara, welcome. Tell us a little bit of your story. How did you wind up in McPherson?

Tamara: God put me there—on purpose. He loved me so much that He took me, to set aside a time just for me. I don’t know about the other eight- or nine-hundred women there, but He put me there in a place where He could talk to me, one-on-one, and show me how much He loved me.

Bob: What was your crime?

Tamara: It was money charges. I think the official title was “fraudulent use of a credit card”—but you don’t get five years for that. But it was really embezzlement; it was money.

Bob: You had to, in that moment, be at the lowest point in your life.

Tamara: Absolutely! I could not go any lower. There was nothing else.

Bob: Had you had any spiritual foundation in your life?

Tamara: Yes, when I was eight years old, I made a profession of faith. My name is written in a Bible that was given to me on that day. I grew up in a Christian home. I raised my children—my husband and I—in a Christian home. I was a Sunday School teacher. I was the church treasurer, married to a deacon.

Bob: You sound like the apostle Paul. So what was the spiritual wake-up call that came in prison, for you?

Tamara: It came before prison somewhat—it was coming. I was that religious person that we hear about. I was that “church lady.” When you don’t have the Lord Jesus Christ in your heart, you can say all the things, you can talk all the talk, you can walk the walk—as you’ve heard so many times before. 

Until He takes over your heart, it’s nothing! I’m sorry for the emotions, but I’m thankful for them because for so long I was so hard. God gave me back my emotions. My husband keeps telling me, “You cannot cry and eat at the same time. 

I have a wonderful family! My husband and I will be married forty years next year; two beautiful daughters and sons-in-law; six great, wonderful grandchildren. But for ten-and-a-half months, God set me aside.

But the moment that I knew that I did not really have Jesus in my heart was on July 1, sitting in a cell in Ft. Smith, Arkansas. Those church ladies came to talk to those “other ladies” that were there. And the Scripture they talked about was, “Depart from me, I never knew you,” and “Not everyone that says, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter in the kingdom of Heaven,” (see Matthew 7:23). At that moment, I knew that was me. That was me!

Bob: That turnaround led you to a different understanding of the gospel and a different kind of life than the church life you had been living.

Tamara: Absolutely. The things that I learned while I was at McPherson, I have to practice today. But the very first thing that I learned was authority. If you don’t know what authority is, you will learn it in a physical prison.

I could not be under anyone’s authority; I didn’t want that authority. I was my own authority, and if I couldn’t do it, it wasn’t gonna get done. I controlled my life, and you see where that led me.

Another thing it takes away is all your judgment, because—as Jennifer alluded to—I was in a maximum security prison, with murderers, with rapists, with people who had committed other money charges, drugs, alcohol. No one knew, unless you told them, what you were there for.

Bob: Everybody’s at the same place at the foot of the cross, aren’t they?

Tamara: Absolutely!

Bob: So your husband, your daughters, your family—today—they all look back on your prison experience as the best thing that happened to mom?

Tamara: They say, “Mom came home a different person than when she left!” [ladies applaud as Tamara steps down and Stephanie comes up to speak.]

Bob: Stephanie, welcome. Tell us a little of your story. How’d you wind up in prison?

Stephanie: Well, sir, I just want to let you know that who I was yesterday is not who I am today, and who I am today is nothing compared to who I am in God’s eyes.

Bob: That’s right! That’s good!

Stephanie: I committed a horrible crime in 2011. I confessed to my crime, and I went to jail and I lived there for thirteen-and-a-half months, and then I went to prison. I went to McPherson. When I got there, I thought I was saved.

I had had a lot of false doctrine and false teaching, and I had come from a background of paganism.

Bob: You say paganism?

Stephanie: Paganism. Well, sir, you know rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft? But I was actually a practicing witch. But I went to prison, and I thank God for jail and for prison, because when I got there—for me—it was just one step closer to home, you know?

Bob: You had to come in with a pretty hard heart.

Stephanie: Oh, sir! I did. You see, I actually cast my first spell when I was about eleven years old . . . and it worked. So at a very tender age, I had that first taste of self-exaltation, and that pride just began to grow.

Bob: When you heard women in prison talking about Jesus, what did you think?

Stephanie: Well, I knew about Him, but I didn’t know He was real! So I wanted what they had, though. They had peace and comfort and joy, and they had things that I had seen all my life in church ladies, and I was pretty sure I wanted some of that, but I didn’t really know how to get it.

Bob: Your spells didn’t get that for you?

Stephanie: Didn’t work. Didn’t nothin’ work. Yeah.

Bob: So, where was the turning point for you in prison; what happened?

Stephanie: Well, the most amazing thing happened. One day after I had moved into the PAL barracks, our chaplain was standing up at the front. There wasn’t an altar call given. He was just teaching about the cross of Jesus Christ, that it was the free gift of God for all mankind.

You know, that Jesus—what He did on that cross—is a finished work. He took care of all sin, past, present, future, all of it—even for me! So I literally knelt down a witch, but sir, I stood up a child of God!

Bob: Wow! [Ladies cheer and applaud as Stephanie walks down and Amy comes to speak.] Amy let me ask you to share a little of your story. What got you to prison?

Amy: Myself got me into prison.  I was extremely unhappy with life and I was searching for something that I wanted. I knew I wanted something; I just didn’t know what it was. I wanted happiness. 

I started doing drugs at a very young age and started drinking, and that became my life. Drugs and alcohol were my whole entire life. That was the most important thing in my life, and because of that, my bills came last.

So, because my bills became last, I did whatever I had to do to get them paid. I started stealing, and I started stealing not only to pay my bills, but also to buy my drugs and my alcohol . . . and it caught up with me, and I ended up in prison—which is the best thing that ever happened to me!

Bob: Did you have any spiritual background?

Amy: I grew up in a Christian home. I was in the church. I played church very well. I knew church; I played church. I could do it with the best of them, but I never had a real experience. I always said I wanted what I saw in the other people. “I want what they have; I see that happiness.”

And in prison, I would see these girls from PAL barracks walking down the hall, and I would think, They’re in prison. How are they walking around with such smiles on their faces? How are they so happy? I wanted that! And I found that in prison; I found exactly what I had been looking for all those years in the drugs and in the alcohol.

I had a lot of anger in my heart. I was mad at the world. I had been abused for many years as a child—mentally, physically and sexually—so I had a lot of anger. I had a lot of hatred—towards myself and towards the people that did it and towards the world!

I hated the world. I hated people. I was ready to just give up on life. As a matter of fact, the night before I got arrested to go to prison—I didn’t necessarily want to kill myself, I just wanted to go to sleep—so I took a bunch of pills, and it backfired! I woke up at five o’clock in the morning with a smile on my face.

But it very well could have killed me, and I ended up in prison that day. I found in prison a lot of happiness, and I was able to find forgiveness. I was able to not only forgive the people who had hurt me, but also forgive myself.

I’m still working on some of my forgiveness issues, especially with myself. But I found a true happiness, a true peace, that I had never felt before. I never knew what true happiness could actually be—and now, I see life so much differently. Life is so good; life is so positive, and there’s so much good in this world. And that’s what I want to do now, is help people.

Bob: Was there a moment or a message or something that was a turning point, a spiritual breakthrough, for you?

Amy: It started whenever I hit the door at prison. I looked around and I was like, “Oh, my goodness, I’m in prison!” I never thought I would be in prison. I said all my life, “I’ll never go to prison. I’m never going to do anything wrong.” Guess what?

Bob: You’re in prison.

Amy: I was in prison. That was kind of a wakeup call when I walked through the gate. So, in 19 Barracks, I started reading my Bible and started talking to one of the guards, and I started hearing about the PAL program.

November 22, I believe that it was Brother Jared that was preaching that night, and he was preaching on Jeremiah 29:11, which is now my life Scripture [“For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.” ESV]  I realized that that was what I was looking for! That Somebody out there cared enough about me to die. But Somebody also cared enough about me to want the best in life for me, and to give me my heart’s desire and everything that I could possibly ever need, want . . . anything, anything! Take all my pain away, take all my sadness, take all my everything. 

That night I went back to my barracks. I went in and I closed my door (I was in a closed barracks). I asked my roommate to step out. I closed my door. I literally got on my knees and cried out to God and begged God to forgive me and to please come into my heart and change me and change the way I thought, the way I walked, the way I talked, change everything about me, and to fill me with Him. And He did just that! (applause)

Bob: Jennifer, all three of these women have referenced the PAL program. That’s a discipleship program that is in the McPherson unit in Arkansas. And you’ve added to that, now, a new phase. There’s a home that’s a transition house. Tell everybody a little bit about the Cornerstone House.

Jennifer: Correct. Cornerstone Transition Home is a faith-based home that ladies that we hope are graduates of the PAL program, or that are Christians on that compound, that they really don’t have anywhere to go. If they go back home to the same environment, you know, there’s drugs still there, there’s no accountability, responsibility. They can come to Cornerstone, and they can stay up to a year, and they can learn how to live this Christian life, now, on the outside.